Taiwan 101: Urban Planning Lessons from the Beautiful Island

The grand Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Taipei 101, Taipei rooftops

Until recently, Taiwan has been just a distant place I knew little about, that seemed fascinating, but one I never imagined I would get to see. And yet, I just got back from spending ten days exploring this island country – an experience enriched by my keen interest in visiting cities the world over to see how they run and whether they hold any lessons to bring back to Chicago. The desire to visit Taipei stemmed from research for my earlier 2019 trip to Japan and the decision to visit was cemented by the availability of a non-stop flight and the country’s LGBT-friendliness – as evidenced by it legalizing same-sex marriage and becoming the first Asian country to do so – despite the political risk posed to its current president who faces re-election in early 2020. But with sweeping mountain vistas, bustling urban streets, delicious food, beautiful sights, and some truly kind people it was a memorable experience – here are some things I noticed as an urban planner while visiting the country.

Taipei’s pristine subway, massive infrastructure, and BRT islands

With the airport 90 minutes outside of Taipei, every visitor’s first interaction with the country is its sparkling subway system via a dedicated line that connects the airport to the capital and commuter suburbs in-between. If only Chicago, or anywhere in America, had anything that came close! Clean, efficient, timely, entirely handicap-accessible, and possibly automated, all of it is a dream by American standards. Taiwan achieved all this despite being so mountainous – at times the rails hug cliff sides high above traffic, often it’s underground, and elsewhere its street-level. Apparently it opened just in 1996, cost vast sums, but currently has 117 stations with 450+ million annual riders! Aside from the subway, several streets have median rapid bus transit with dedicated lanes. All of it being so new shows what is possible when transit and mobility access are viewed as foundational to a city’s basic function and integral to its growth.

Night Markets in Keelung and Taipei, 1900s train station in Taichung

Another joy to visiting Taiwan is soaking in its culture of Night Markets. These are outside bazaars with vendors hawking clothes, toys, and electronics but most importantly, a dizzying variety of food – actual street food, including the truly rank stinky tofu, fried meats, soup dumplings, noodles, seafood, omelettes, along with bubble tea, smoothies, and candied fruit. In fact, the entire country seems to come to life at night. Much of Taipei is made of nondescript blocks clad in what looks like bathroom tile and haphazardly thrown up to accommodate the island’s rapid growth. Nearly every building surface and rooftop is covered by billboards and neon that, by day, looks like just clutter, but as the sun sets, the scooter-choked streets and alleys are transformed into something that, to a Westerner, is wholly alien and beguiling with every nook and cranny holding something to discover and taste. This culture of being outside at night is forced somewhat by cramped living conditions and the tropical climate, but it’s one I wish to see more of in Chicago. Here, neon signs are inexplicably banned by zoning. My old colleagues at Uptown United are trying to replicate this at the Argyle Night Market, but they face an uphill battle with a populace unsure of what to make of such an event. To me, the difficulties in running that event are symptomatic of rigidity stifling innovation.

The Red House and Taiwan’s LGBT district, the Ximending Pedestrian Area

Despite the country working hard to project its LGBT-friendliness, there were few signs of actual gay or queer anything to be seen, except in the area near a 1908 public market, the Red House, which now houses an art market and events. Behind it is a slew of adult stores and rainbow-draped bars, a rather limiting display of LGBT culture, but welcome nonetheless. But, across the street from it is the Ximending, a Times Square-like pedestrian area brimming with countless stores and people and home to yet another Night Market on top of it all. Its pedestrianization in 1999 spurred the area’s revival. All this combined shows how one place catering to so many interests is in that place’s interest to succeed.

Taiwan’s colonial past in Tamsui.

Another surprise was Tamsui, in Taipei’s outlining New Taipei City district. Connected to Taipei via its subway and with a light-rail of its own, this area feels laid-back and preserves fragments of the island’s European conquests – notable since historic preservation is often an after-thought.

Overall, the five days in the Taipei region with day trips to Sun Moon Lake and Jiufen’s hill-side tea houses were just a sample of its rich culture and endless attractions. In the next post, I’ll write about the next five days in the country’s southern half.